Photography by Will Godfrey
The Diwali Ball has certainly been a long time coming. Last held in Michaelmas 2019, it has been cancelled once (like almost everything else in 2020) and postponed again last term due to the Oxford Town Hall cutting capacity. Shonal Kapoor, President of the Ball and Vice-President of Oxford University Hindu Society (HUMSoc), admits that these complications have meant that the Ball “has been a lot more work than we had originally planned”. Remarkably the committee remained undeterred, instead taking the opportunity to find a new venue with double the capacity.
Talking to Kapoor, it is clear to see why HUMSoc remain committed to hosting what they refer to as Oxford’s “largest, cheapest cultural ball”. Certainly, it provides “something a bit different from the usual college balls”. Where else can you enjoy bhangra performances, henna stalls and DJ Mix Singh (“nice wordplay on that”) blasting Bollywood tunes all in one night? Split between two main halls – one with catering and a traditional Indian band, and the other with a dance floor – it is obvious that Kapoor and his committee have given a lot of consideration to combining the traditional and the festive, a balance that is core to Diwali’s very spirit.
Equally integral to Diwali – and indeed any Indian festival – is the food, and this was something that Kapoor got visibly excited about. Offering canapés, starters, mains and desserts – “all Indian, all vegetarian” – Kapoor confirmed that his committee has worked with catering to ensure that there “should hopefully be enough for everyone to eat their complete fill” (to the relief of Indian grandmas everywhere). Even more excitingly, there will be live dosa stands, a chocolate fountain (complete with vegetarian marshmallows) and a fully open bar, including cocktails and mocktails designed specially for the event. Not only do the cocktails sound amazing – Kapoor flagged the Kaapi (Indian coffee) Martini as the Indian answer to Baileys and wholly delicious- but it was evident that the committee have put equal effort into designing non-alcoholic alternatives. Kapoor emphasised that they wanted “to make sure that the drink selection is as good if not even better” for those who do not drink.
This kind of thoughtfulness seems to have driven all of the committee’s preparations for the ball. While Kapoor is quick to praise the previous balls, but even so it is clear that this iteration does not limit itself to conforming to past templates. Perhaps it is the natural circuit breaker from convention provided by the pandemic, or perhaps it is the extended time the committee have had to think, but this year’s ball promises to make a distinctive contribution to the long-running tradition. Something Kapoor and his team were particularly keen to improve was the speed of service and to this end, they have tripled the number of staff.
Balls increasingly also have to contend with sustainability objectives – pressing not least because of the inherent wastefulness of such large and extravagant events. Was this something the committee kept in mind? Certainly, Kapoor nods, especially because the original ball was scheduled to occur during the same week as COP26. Some of the initiatives they have adopted include serving drinks in cups made from recycled plastic, as well as working with their supplier to incorporate sustainable materials into the ball as a whole. Predictably, a full Covid risk assessment has also been undertaken, though this is truly the least interesting of the changes and as Kapoor assures me that this does not demand too much of the attendees, who will be briefed in due course on exact guidance.
Indeed, one of the central challenges facing a ball’s committee is not a new one – Oxford balls are no strangers to charges of elitism. Given that entry to most balls depends on a ticket bought for an astronomical price, it is clear that accessibility remains a live concern. How did the committee navigate this? Well, firstly, Kapoor points out that the Diwali ball is notably already one of the cheapest available in Oxford, with its maximum ticket price of £80 and a minimum of £60 – far lower than most college balls. Accessibility seems a particularly important consideration for this ball, as it does not just represent a fun night out, but also the opportunity to celebrate what, for many, is a significant cultural and religious holiday. HUMSoc seems to have taken this responsibility seriously, ensuring that no one who applied for a concession ticket was turned away. Thus, almost 10% of all tickets sold were heavily discounted to £35 and given the increased capacity of 700, this hopefully ensures that nearly everyone who wants to attend can.
It is not lost on Kapoor that many who perhaps do not traditionally celebrate Diwali will be attending the ball. In fact, he believes that the ball in particular and HUMSoc in general play an important role in bringing Indian culture to the wider Oxford community, given, as he admits, its ‘diversity is not great’. Nevertheless, he is cautiously optimistic, and perhaps the growth of the Diwali ball, especially in the last decade, can be seen as one marker of improvements in Oxford’s diversity, with Kapoor particularly pleased that more South Asian people than ever are attending the ball this year.
Finally, I have to ask, isn’t having a Diwali ball in January a bit like, well, holding a Christmas party in April? Kapoor laughs and protests that it is only “two months after Diwali, so I don’t think we have done too badly there”. Jokes aside, of course, he is right. It is hard to overstate the importance of HUMSoc as a whole, and the Diwali Ball in particular, in providing a forum for connection and shared identity amongst Oxford’s Indian and Hindu students. Kapoor encourages anyone who is interested in getting involved with HUMSoc to look into committee applications (which are currently open) or even just to come and talk to a committee member at the Ball. Kapoor ends by declaring that he is ‘[e]xcited for it to be a really good night’. And after all he has told me, it is hard to think why you would want to be anywhere else on a cold, dark January evening than at a celebration of the festival of lights.